The Laguna Beach City Council Wildfire Mitigation and Fire Safety Subcommittee has released its report identifying and prioritizing additional programs, mitigation measures, staffing and equipment needed to reduce the current level of high fire risk and exposure to wildfires in Laguna Beach. A detailed copy of the Subcommittee’s report can be found at http://www.lagunabeachcity.net/cityhall/pw/wildfire_mitigation_and_fire_safety.htm
"Wildfires present one of the biggest risks to public safety in the City,” said Laguna Beach Mayor Bob Whalen. “While we can’t eliminate the risk of wildfires, we can take some meaningful steps to reduce our risks. This report contains a number of practical suggestions that if implemented will go a long way to improving public safety and protecting lives."
In December 2018, the City Council approved the formation of the Wildfire Mitigation and Fire Safety Subcommittee, comprised of Laguna Beach Mayor Bob Whalen and City Councilmember Sue Kempf. The Subcommittee began its work with the City Manager and other staff to assess the City’s current level of risk and exposure to wildfires, identify and prioritize additional programs, mitigation measures and identify a funding plan needed to further reduce the risk of loss of life and property damage from wildfires.
Nearly all of the City of Laguna Beach and its surrounding 16,000 acres of open space are designated by CalFire as a Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone. This designation underscores the significant wildfire risk in the City. The City has a hilly terrain, significant vegetation that is fuel for wildfires and is subject to hot, dry summer and fall seasons and high‐speed Santa Ana winds. These conditions are frequently involved in the most destructive fires in the region. Due to these conditions in the natural environment, the City has a history of wildfires, the most devastating of which occurred in 1993 when Laguna Beach was struck by a Santa Ana wind‐driven fire that consumed over 14,000 acres, caused the evacuation of over 23,000 people, and destroyed 441 homes and structures in less than a day. The City also experienced wildfires in 2015 and 2018 which started in the open space.
Though the City has taken numerous fire mitigation steps since the 1993 fire, the risk created by the natural environment is compounded by certain physical constraints and limitations in the City including limited evacuation routes, overhead utilities, impaired access areas, older buildings and the impact of visitors complicating an evacuation.
The Subcommittee gathered information from other wildfires and was briefed by experts regarding wildfire risks and responses in the State, including touring the City of Paradise which was destroyed by a wind-driven fire that killed 85 people in November 2018. The Subcommittee also received a briefing on the Woolsey Fire that also occurred in November 2018 in the Malibu area, which burned 97,000 acres and destroyed 1,643 structures. City staff also attended the Governor’s Emergency Management Summit in Sacramento in June which helped frame certain analysis and possible recommendations in the Subcommittee’s report.
"Over the last 7 months, Mayor Whalen and I have worked with City’s executive management team and staff from key departments, representatives from the Laguna Beach Water and South Coast Water Districts, California legislators and representatives from various municipalities to craft a plan of action for Laguna Beach,” said City Council and Subcommittee member Sue Kempf. “We look forward to presenting our findings and recommendations at the upcoming July 23 City Council meeting."
The report contains 47 possible actions to be taken to mitigate the risk of a wildfire occurring in the City and to minimize the impact should one occur. Short term (1-2 years) priorities identified in the Subcommittee’s report include improving the City’s public evacuation process by developing an evacuation modeling study, creating an interactive GPS evacuation map, installing evacuation signage and an evacuation traffic signal priority system. Improving the City’s emergency notification systems by installing a City-wide outdoor warning system and a neighborhood outreach system are also identified as priorities in the report. Other short-term priorities include continuing to eliminate the risks associated with overhead utilities by undergrounding remaining areas along Coast Highway and areas of Bluebird Canyon Drive, and additional vegetation management in the Bluebird Canyon area. Improving fire resistive infrastructure, the City’s emergency communication systems and expanding and maintaining the City’s defensible space are also short-term priorities. There are substantial existing local funding sources sufficient to fund all of the proposed short-term mitigation measures, estimated at $22.9 million, and also fund portions of the medium-term measures.
In the medium term (3‐5 years), the Subcommittee recommends completing fuel modification zones in the City and improving wildfire resistance of existing residences. The estimated funding needed for these items is $9.4 million, some of which can come from existing City funding sources but will also require funding from future grants. Long term priorities include further undergrounding of utilities on Laguna Canyon Road, undergrounding throughout the City by neighborhood assessment districts and increasing the capacity of South Coast Water District reservoirs. Funding for long term priorities will vary depending on grants or other sources of local, state or utility company funds.
"If the Council adopts the Subcommittee’s recommendations, we will immediately begin implementing over $20 million of short-term actions by committing certain existing revenues over the next three years which is great news for our community,” Whalen said. “The medium term and long-term recommendations will require us to identify new grants and revenue sources. If Council accepts the recommendations from the Subcommittee, we will go to work to pursue additional funding."
The Subcommittee will present its recommendations identifying and prioritizing additional programs, mitigation measures, staffing and equipment needed to reduce the current level of high fire risk and exposure to wildfires in Laguna Beach and funding solutions outlined in the report to the City Council for consideration on July 23. The Draft Agenda Bill for the July 23 City Council meeting can be found at http://www.lagunabeachcity.net/cityhall/pw/wildfire_mitigation_and_fire_safety.htm